Fast Five: Spotlight shines on Michigan company at Detroit conference of national energy officials

Significant benefits using digital AI platforms at the intersection of 
 water-energy nexus

Mahesh Lunani, CEO of Troy-based Aquasight

The National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) is meeting in Detroit (Sept. 23–26) for its annual conference. At the conference, Mahesh Lunani, CEO of Troy, Mich.-based Aquasight, will discuss emerging Digital AI Platforms and the value they create for Water and Wastewater Systems. Lunani will highlight the results of a pilot project at the Great Lakes Water Authority’s Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF) led by Aquasight.

Can you describe Water-Energy nexus economy?

Water-Energy is a significant economy on its own. Based on published studies in the U.S., 350 billion gallons of water is withdrawn every day and 48 billion gallons are used by public water systems, representing 12 percent of overall withdrawals. On the other hand, 12.6 percent of the country’s primary energy consumption is water-related, 33 percent of which is used by public water and wastewater systems. In other words, municipal water and wastewater systems consume 4.1 percent of U.S.’s total annual primary energy. This is an amount equal to the energy required to power 6.5 million homes for one year. Clearly, the Water-Energy nexus significantly impacts the economy and environment and has deep social relevance.

There are 52,000 public water systems and 15,000 wastewater plants in U.S. Where should state energy officials focus?

The industry is geographically decentralized, and its structure has a long tail. However, around 3,000 systems serve 80 percent of the U.S. population; this provides a clear starting point. In addition, 80 percent of the 57 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) consumed annually by public water and wastewater systems is related to three processes: pumping, aeration and solids processing. There is also a huge variation in life cycle energy intensity of municipal water. Energy demand is anywhere between 2,700 kWh/million gallons to 12,600 kWh/million gallons. The initial focus should be on systems that are above the national average of 3,450 kWh/million gallons.

What is the emerging innovation in this area?

The industry has made great progress: automation, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), efficient motors, variable frequency drives, (VFDs), and on-site energy generation, are some of the many measures in place at facilities. However, these traditional approaches are capital-intensive and have long implementation cycles. Digital AI Platforms are an emerging opportunity that can be deployed rapidly, regardless of where water and wastewater systems stand in their application of other hardware/control energy efficiency measures. They are a zero-capital technology that treats readily available real-time data, which is plenty available. These platforms intelligently link performance to operational inputs and help facilities achieve savings of 10 percent to 45 percent in energy alone. We refer to them as “Real-Time AI Advisory Platforms” since water and wastewater systems operate under dynamic conditions and must evolve in real-time. These platforms allow utility operators to know how they are performing relative to optimal design and delivers actionable advice to help achieve optimal performance without risking permit violations or compromising services.

It sounds Sci-Fi. Have you applied such Digital AI platforms?

The Michigan Energy Office and Aquasight have worked together to deploy a Digital AI Platform for wastewater treatment (called Apollo), at the Great Lakes Water Authority’s WWRF, one of the largest plants in the country. Apollo gives “real-time” advice to plant management and operators across all unit processes within the plant. Apollo helped to uncover avenues for 20 percent annually recurring savings, while meeting all pollutant removal goals. The platform converts art to science using AI and enables the workforce to make intelligent choices in a complex and dynamic system. Most importantly, Apollo required no additional capital investment and took advantage of existing infrastructure. The platform is an integral part of daily plant management, and its value grows over time as more data is fed to it. Most importantly, Apollo is agnostic to treatment process, type and size of operations and is a key factor moving public water and wastewater systems into the next generation. I think the Great Lakes Water Authority has truly embraced the future.

What advice would you give to state energy officials?

The primary goal of water and wastewater systems is permits and services. They have very little incentive and limited resources to focus on energy efficiency.

AI Platforms “digitally offset” the lack of resources available for driving energy efficiency approaches. State energy officials should incentivize adoption of such digital AI platforms and should consider expanding energy efficiency incentives of low-cost and no-cost measures. Every $1 of recurring energy savings offers on an average $13 of capital investment without raising water rates for the public. If we take Aquasight’s experience and apply it to the entire U.S. water and wastewater system, the numbers become very meaningful — 11.4 billion kWh/year of savings which is equivalent to powering 1.1 million households along with $7.4 billion of water infrastructure investments available for cities to invest without raising water and wastewater rates.